The international woodworking technology exhibition was the occasion to discuss three topical issues for the industry, with the contribution of leading representatives from industry, institutions and associations.
Three talk shows were organized by our magazine, three “hot topics” for the wood industry: forests, enterprise culture and technology. Three different sessions at Xylexpo 2012 dealt with the key topics of the wood industry, with the participation of leading representatives and actors from the sector: the future of the industry facing the boom of biomass usage for energy production; packaging and the innovation challenge in a global world; and the new relationship between handicraft and technology, looking for a difficult, though not impossible, balance between manual skills and numerical control.
Striving for a balance between production and energy
Energy generation from biomass is one of the hottest topics in the wood industry. This was the subject of the first session of the “Xylon Talk Shows”, held during Xylexpo. If you gather particleboard and mdf panel manufacturers for the furniture industry, biomass plant manufacturers (firewood, processing waste and recycled wood), representatives of institutions and category associations, an intensive debate is guaranteed. Even more if you mention the “Action Days” promoted by Epf (European Panel Federation), when panel manufacturers took up the hatchet in order to draw the attention of institutions to the risks of "burning up" an essential industrial raw material, while also releasing into the atmosphere the carbon dioxide stored for an entire lifecycle, thanks to the carbon stock that financial incentives to renewable energy sources are intended to fight.
According to the figures presented at the latest edition of “Progetto Fuoco” in Verona, Italy is the world’s biggest importer of firewood and the European leader in pellet consumption (20 million tons of wood biomass in 2012). Striving to reduce energy costs, Italians have installed 5.9 million wood-fueled heating plants so far (1.5 pellet stoves). Such trend is supported by European Community policies that mandate an increasing use of wood biomass in Italy by 2020; in addition, with the fiscal incentives introduced by the Conto Energia (Energy Bill), the national energy plan sees 2020 as the year when biomass will become the first renewable energy source: within a 44 percent share of energy consumption covered by green sources, 60 percent will be generated from wood biomass. This alarming picture for the panel and furniture industry has driven FederlegnoArredo to submit proposals to the European Parliament and Italian institutions, stating that wood should be burnt for energy generation only at the end of its lifecycle.
At the meeting “Biomass, an opportunity and a challenge for the wood system”, all voices were involved in the discussion and everyone contributed to drawing a picture of the market and near-term developments, also in view of Italian and European energy policies that encourage the use of biomass – virgin fiber, processing wastes and recycled material – as energy source.
Paolo Fantoni, president of Assopannelli/FederlegnoArredo, opened the debate, stressing the worries of his industry for the intensive energy exploitation of biomass, which deprives the panel industry of resources. A balanced exploitation of biomass, equally distributed across all industries, requires a policy that supports the creation of small plants for short-medium range service, rather than big power stations (like in Great Britain), far from the production sites of panel manufacturers. An overall approach based on use-reuse-recycle and final combustion for energy production, combined with sustainable forest management, would also support local employment, not to mention the central role of wood as carbon stock for CO2. The first step in this direction was taken by the forest-wood supply chain with the States-General held last November: The “Green thread” initiative, Fantoni said, marked the beginning of a lobbying action aimed at institutions, first of all the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Forests. The goal is to draft one single law that clearly defines and coordinates the different spheres of competence, supporting team work.
Institutions did not miss the event. Roberto Carovigno, manager of the Forest Department of Region Lombardy, illustrated the policies enacted by the Regional Council for the development of efficient and sustainable forest management based on the short supply chain concept, especially for the exploitation of wood biomass resulting from maintenance operations. Problems exist, as shown by the figures of the annual report drafted by the Region: public and private actors have both big troubles of management and mutual interaction, while the excessive fragmentation of private owners does not offer the necessary visibility on cutting, trade and use of wood biomass. So, we need a process that, through public-private associations, guarantees the proper use of forest resources, effective infrastructures for forest areas (real forest roads, not just access road for holiday houses) and a zero-mile biomass energy exploitation policy, focused on remote heating plants on a local/municipal scale or for special districts.
Recycling and reusing wood is a necessary step to leverage the full value of this raw material – or secondary raw material – for new industrial uses, panels first. This concept was underlined by Sebastiano Cerullo, wood department manager at FederlegnoArredo, who also stressed that the primary destination of recycled wood is particleboard, while only a smaller portion is addressed to the energy market. The reuse of wood represents a significant opportunity for the industry to promote innovation, starting from the reorganization of forest management, in view of the constant expansion of global wood consumption.
Paolo Perini, president of Assopellet/Aiel (Italian association of agro-forest energy), reminded the central role played by pellet heating in Italy: in ten years, especially from 2005-2006, it has covered 90 percent of fuel consumption for stoves up to 35 kW and boilers above 35 kW. Overall, 1.5 million stoves are in operation, burning 2 million tons of pellets every year, whereby pellet prices are still more competitive than diesel oil and methane. Italy is the top consumer of pellets in Europe, but not the biggest producer, which causes a serious problem in the supply chain: only one quarter of demand is covered by domestic resources, so it is urgent to launch a policy for the optimal exploitation of raw material starting from forests, just like they do in Austria, Germany and Central Europe. The primary source to get pellets, Perini said, is waste from primary operations.
Big plants, why not? If properly located in the territory, they allow to leverage useful synergy and short supply chains, and they also offer the possibility to produce heat and power through co-generation, so they are a significant opportunity for energy supplies. Davis Zinetti of Uniconfort, San Martino di Lupari (Padova), said that, by enacting shared policies and respecting market laws where demand and offer “regulate” the available options to agro-forestry operators, we can ensure a sustainable exploitation of biomass for energy purposes without generating conflicts with panel manufacturers.
What’s the opinion of sawmills, which play a key role in the supply of waste for the production of energy as well as panels? Milena De Rossi, Primary Operations Group of Assolegno/FederlegnoArredo, said that selling processing waste is a vital added value for sawmills, especially in the current crisis situation. The optimized exploitation of Italian wood, currently used at 20 percent of its potential, would bring significant results and prevent operators, sawmills first, to purchase logs from abroad to cover domestic demand.
New opportunities from technology
The second session of Xylexpo talk shows dealt with another hot topic for the wood industry. “Wooden packagings. The roads to real technology innovation”. The debate gathered the key representatives of the industry around a table, from category associations to technology producers for pallets and wooden crates, and it was an occasion to talk about the present and future. The starting point for reflection was the analysis of the problems caused by the crisis and increasing competitiveness, but most of all the identification of priorities to deploy an action for industry growth in the coming years: for the wood packaging market, the offer of a complete and integrated customer service and technological innovation are the ideal antidotes to market difficulties, while quality brands have a unified approach to repairing and manufacturing companies, for the defense of forest assets. Without forgetting the real challenge, especially for technology suppliers: pallet production must be flexible enough to turn non-standard products into the new market reference.
The discussion, moderated by Sebastiano Cerullo, secretary general of Conlegno, was opened by Michele Ballardini, coordinator of the technical committee FitOk: according to Ballardini, the future of industrial packaging will necessarily have to take full customer service into consideration, as making pallets or crates is no longer enough in a global competitive market. This innovative approach is driving the sector to an accurate analysis of logistics, in order to work with the final customers adopting an integrated approach that ultimately delivers not just a packaging, but a complete packaging method. Ballardini also talked about the great success of the FitOK brand, which certifies the phytosanitary treatment of packagings for the protection of forests and ecosystems, in force since 2005. As a result of frequent controls and inspections to safeguard the brand reputation, disputes related to branded packagings, especially those shipped to international markets with a strong attention to contamination and insect propagation risks, were just 8 in 2011 and still none in 2012, with great benefits for the entire industry.
Emanuele Barigazzi, coordinator of the Epal technical committee (Epal is the owner of Eur Epal, the international brand for the exchange of reusable pallets), mainly focuses on critical aspects of the supply chain, mentioning extreme technological simplification as an example: on one side, the availability of more and more versatile plants in non-standard operations meets the requirements of consumers, but on the other, it has caused serious troubles to small-medium companies, which had specialized in format changes in the past, and now are no longer considered specialists. The situation is difficult also for Epal pallet production, which decreased by 12 percent in the first quarter 2012 compared to the same period of 2010.
Discussion also involved the producers of pallet repair machinery, playing a key role in today's market. Marco Casalboni of Cemil (Bulciago, Lecco), specializing in the production of pallet repair equipment, not only stressed the poor availability of resources for repair companies to acquire new technology, but also highlighted the need to review and monitor pallet producers and repair services in order to avoid fake FitOK treatments and the production of non-compliant packaging. Also Maria Grazia Corali of Corali in Carobbio degli Angeli, Bergamo, proudly reaffirmed the key role played by female perseverance for the growth of an industry like packaging technology, and then illustrated the quality of the industry: the acquisition of specialized automation can make the difference on the market, because it enables a company to grow, while considering that a technology vendor is not a supplier, but rather a partner that should not be weakened.
Technology might be the key to help wooden packaging defeat the tough competition of plastics, at least according to Mauro Mastrototaro, board member of Assoimballaggi, who drew a realistic picture of mass retail, where wooden packagings have been suffering for years under the pressure of plastics. The light at the end of the tunnel is visible, and it will be reached in two ways: first, fruit and vegetable packagings are no longer considered waste, but secondary raw material for recycling and biomass; second, collaboration with Assoimballaggi (associated to FederlegnoArredo) will allow to deploy new approaches and tools, starting from communication, to help the wooden packaging industry make up for wasted time.
Also Ettore Durbiano, president of Assoimballaggi and owner of Durbiano Imballaggi in Rivoli (Turin), stated that automation can support success. His company has recently invested in a new production plant for folding plywood boxes, which helped them acquire new market shares despite the difficult economic situation. The market crisis was also discussed by Angelo Scaroni, member of the board of the Pallet Repair Group of Assoimballaggi: he suggested to see the difficult economic situation not only as a critical phase, but also as an opportunity for change, where each and everyone shall begin to work well, especially control and certification institutes, which do not always work as they should. The closing speech was delivered by Gianluca Storti of the same-named company from Motta Baluffi (Cremona). He summed up the entire forum, underlining that the industry trend is to produce non-standard pallets; as a result, manufacturers need a compact and easy-to-manage sawmill that enables them to produce the right product within a short time, to meet customer demand.
Between manual “gestures” and numerical control
The third and last talk show was about “The questions of handicraft, the answers of technology”. Where does the borderline between the typical manual skills of craftsmen and the new “technological" approach to production lie, especially in the wooden window industry? This is the topic, discussed in depth by several speakers representing market demand and offer, who tried to draw a profile of technology demand by today’s companies, both small and medium, with a handicraft vocation. The picture that emerged is a cross interaction that, on one side, "engineers” the know-how of craftsmen, and on the other, “softens” the serial rigidity of big industries into the peculiarities of unique pieces. Without forgetting the central role that IT and software applications are playing in the industry, marking the difference between a new production method in interaction with customers and a sort of proto-industrial approach linked to manual skills and applied arts. The agenda topics were clear and articulated, and discussion generated several hints for further analysis of a topical issue.
Giancarlo Cinci, owner of MC Infissi in Prato, national vice president of Cna wood-window department and vice president of Consorzio LegnoLegno, said that, today, handicraft is no longer the "romantic" job of past decades and centuries, but still it has not turned into an industry: the handicraft vision of the added value and quality of a unique piece translates into new processing opportunities supported by technology, integrated with high-end manual skills far from extreme automation. By combining handicraft manual skills and machine technology, he explained, you can get a product that is both technologically advanced and high quality.
Handicraft approach to production also requires that last-generation technology is applied in adequate releases. Homag Group has been working on this for many years, said Mario Caspani (Homag Italia). Twenty years ago, they launched the “Practive” machine range for the handicraft sector, providing small-medium companies with the same technology designed for the big industry. To introduce industrial technology into smaller production organizations, you cannot just simplify a few functions or eliminate some aggregates; you need a suitable concept to enhance flexibility through fast production cycles, so that handicraft businesses can promptly respond to the needs of ever-changing demand.
Luigi Sella, owner of Falegnameria Sella Ezio in Tonezza del Cimone (Vicenza) and representative of Confartigianato Legno arredo in Vicenza, illustrated the point of view of a purely handicraft company, the good old traditional joiner, who can make anything from windows to furniture. According to Sella, the transition to current technology applied to the craftsman’s experience is very profitable; but despite the great satisfaction for new process capabilities offered by electronics and numerical control, it’s still human manual skills that make the difference.
Paolo Santi, owner of Smc in Rosasco (Pavia), proposed a reflection on the handicraft-industry relationship. A handicraft company does not produce more because it needs to manufacture more windows, as this would cause the loss of the special added value of handicraft; but rather, it aims at producing better or with peculiar features. This approach requires a different market situation, where tough competition and individualism are replaced by the capacity to develop a different production system, as it happens abroad, where handicraft and manufacturing industry find common ways to overcome market difficulties.
Twenty-six years, a degree in industrial engineering, Daniele Dal Dosso is the owner of Dal Dosso in Pratrivero (Biella), he represents the new generation that joins the handicraft world with a totally new knowledge pack. The transition from strictly manual work to advanced technology is driving craftsmen to move from production to design, changing his original expertise. In this case, knowledge is not based on workshop practice, but rather on solid IT foundations, which allow to migrate expertise from the manual to the technological domain, promoting constant innovation. Finding people with such skills is not always easy.
Christian Salvador, co-owner of Salvador in San Vendemiano (Treviso), underlined that technology had the merit of reconciling the two categories of industry and handicraft, enabling the latter to handle similar products in terms of quality and repeatability, thus releasing from the essential role of competent operators. At the same time, using technology, the industry gets away from serial production and can make all-different pieces of furniture, adopting a different approach typical of handicraft businesses.
Gianluca Adami, co-owner of Gda Tools in Besenello (Trento) and vice president of the Tool Manufacturers Group of Acimall, laid the accent on the importance and key role of tools for the work of craftsmen using new technology. Used to live in both worlds – handicraft and industry – tool manufacturers are rediscovering a different relationship with craftsmen, based on increasing demand for customization and different products. While tools used to be considered a simple accessory, now the situation has changed, with a new awareness of its use and selection: to make furniture or windows, collaboration with tool manufacturers is more and more critical.
Alberto Faccin, sales manager of Fravol (Peraga di Vigonza, Padova), had the task of opening a view on the future: simply stated, a Web-based interactive software platform that allows to design your own furniture or another product and “send” all machining information directly to the working center changes the relationship between customer and craftsman, placing the latter into a high-end market niche. The concept comes from America and a partnership between Fravol and a US specialist: it can offer a further solution, between handicraft and industry, opening up new interesting developments also in Italy. The basic peculiarity of this software is that it can draw and design independently of machine configurations, so that any private customer can draw his own item and request its production based on a list inside a shared network. Furthermore, this approach might be used by the manufacturer to create a different interaction with customers, based on a 3D model.